By PAUL DICKSON and THOMAS B. ALLEN
GARRETT PARK, Md. -- On July 28, 1932 -- 73 summers ago -- America witnessed a singular incident in which thousands of World War I veterans were driven from camps in Washington by members of the U.S. Army.
The expulsion of this racially integrated group of vets was highly dramatic. Tanks thundered up Pennsylvania Avenue, saber-swinging mounted troops rode into the crowds, and 2,000 tear-gas canisters were fired. Acted out in the shadow of the Capitol, the drama ended with a deliberate torching of the sprawling main Bonus Army camp, and a forced exodus for the vets and their families.
These vets had come to Washington to collect payment of the "bonus" promised eight years before, in 1924, to soldiers who had served in the Great War at base pay of a dollar a day. The bonus amounted to an additional dollar a day -- two bits more for service overseas -- for every day served. However, invocation of "fiscal responsibility" -- and the fear that more than 400,000 black vets would be paid a bonus, thereby threatening the two-tiered wage system in the South and elsewhere -- caused Congress to defer payment until 1945.
Gathering in Washington
The bonus impasse went on until March 1932, when a jobless ex-sergeant, Walter W. Waters, stood up at a veterans meeting in Portland, Ore., and proposed that every man present hop a freight and head for Washington to get the money that was rightfully theirs.
He got no takers that night, but on May 11, when a new version of a bill calling for immediate payment was shelved in the House, 250 veterans, with only $30 among them, rallied behind a banner reading "Portland Bonus March -- On to Washington," and trekked to Portland's freight yards.
A few hours later, a freight train, emptied of livestock but still reeking of manure, stopped to board these men calling themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Force" -- B.E.F. for short -- a play on American Expeditionary Force, the name for the troops sent to France. To everyone else the B.E.F. became the Bonus Army.
Waters eventually attracted veterans and families from every state in the nation who came to lobby for immediate payment and they got the measure passed in the House, but it failed in the Senate.
Many of the veterans stayed vowing to remain in Washington until 1945 or until payment was made. With Congress in recess and the summer of a presidential election year dragging on the decision was made to expel them.
The veterans returned in 1933 and 1934. Many of the 1934 returnees were sent to work camps in the Florida Keys where close to 300 of them died in a hurricane. Their deaths spurred the final passage of the Bonus payment in 1936, allowing many veterans to finally get a toehold on middle-class life.
Fighting for their rights
The march of the Bonus Army was not a mere Depression-era incident -- it was an episode in a great American epic lost in the margins of history.
What that ragtag army gave America was a chance to see that there was an American way to stage a revolution. In those desperate days, many Americans fearfully looked to Europe and saw what happened when Russian and German veterans manned the barricades in revolution of the left and right.
In America, veterans taught an American lesson to those who fretted over revolution: If you have a grievance, take it to Washington, and if you want to be heard, bring a lot of people with you.
Those veterans of World War I knew that the Constitution said -- right there in the First Amendment -- that Americans had the right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The place to take the petition was Congress, and Congress was in Washington, so the Bonus Army went there, instead of to the barricades.
The actions of the Bonus Army became the lesson for non-violent marches and encampments to come. Waters, as the common man who steps onto the stage to change things, became Frank Capra's model for his film heroes of the Great Depression.
The urge that led to the expulsion was reversed in June 1944 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill of Rights into law.
The need for a social contract between our nation and its armed forces, sought by the Bonus Army, became a reality in the G.I. Bill. And the contract endures, for veterans of war and peace, into the 21st century. That great change, that guarantee of a just reward, is the magnificent legacy of the Bonus Army.
XPaul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen wrote "The Bonus Army: An American Epic," published earlier this year. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.